Fill in the Blanks

I can solve Rubik’s Cubes.  I can win games of Solitaire.  I can bowl strikes and spares consistently through a game of Wii bowling.

I know it sounds silly, but that’s the way I am.  I figure out a process that works and use it to death.

Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”  He had a process too.  But his process was for a different result.  The result he wanted was the movement of large objects.  His process was a fulcrum and lever.  Once he had that down, he could achieve his result whenever he wished.

What’s the desired result of Rubik’s Cubes?  Solitaire?  Wii bowling?  Simple.  They’re all games.  You play to have fun.  Winning might seem synonymous with fun in this case, but fun is the true goal.

So I have a question for myself.  Does knowing the process to winning each of these things help me achieve my goal?

Sure it does.  If winning is synonymous with fun, I can have fun with each of these games simply by winning.  But wait.  I said that winning might seem synonymous.  Is it really?

Well, I suppose you have to figure that out separately for each task.  Rubik’s Cubes, when you don’t know how to solve them, are extremely frustrating.  I have never known myself to have fun twisting a Rubik’s Cube when I don’t know where I’m going with it.  But Solitaire and most other games are different.  The goal of all of them is to win, yes, but the fun comes from the process of winning, not from the actual moment of winning.  It’s the feeling that you’ve actually worked hard to win, instead of simply rattling off a formula.  In that case, the formula isn’t worth it.  Having a formula makes achieving the goal impossible.

But for someone like Archimedes, who has more important things in mind than winning card games against himself, is the formula a good thing?  Well, let me counter that with another question: is his goal something that can only be achieved in the process?  No.  It doesn’t matter how he moves his object, but as long as he does, he’s achieved his goal.

Let’s get down to the real question, then.  Are formulas helpful for writing?

Well, that depends on your goal, now doesn’t it?  If your goal is to write the Great American Novel, then yes, yes they are.  Formulas will help you achieve that goal with as little resistance possible.  However, if your goal is to have the most fun ever with this novel, whether it gets published or not… I’d say skip the formula.  Unless, that is, you get a rush from completing checklists.

When you’re focused on the end result instead of the process, you run the risk of ending up like James Patterson.  Now, I haven’t read many of his books, but I’ve heard that all of them have the same plot, the same sorts of characters– they’re predictable to the extreme.  Patterson is more concerned about creating a bestseller than having fun while doing it.

When you’re focused on the process, however, you tend to forget the best way to craft a story, just throwing everything onto the page as it occurs to you.  It’s a lot of fun.  When you reach the end, however, you can’t help but wonder what you were thinking.

I’m a discovery writer– I tend to love the process more than the end result.  When I finished Fathoming Egression, I wrote this:

I had a lot of fun with this draft, I must say.  This really revitalized my love of letting the story uncover itself.  So many things just popped into place like puzzle pieces that I will never plot a book again.

However, in the same post, I said this:

You know that feeling you get when you put the last piece of a puzzle into place, look at the whole thing, then say “Oops”?  That’s something like what I’m feeling now.  Everything fell into place so perfectly, and now that I’m looking at it I’m wondering if I should be allowed to ever again touch a pencil.

Obviously, I was in that delirious state of having finished my second novel, but there’s some truth in what I’m saying.  I loved the process of writing the story, but I also wished I could have planned it better.  I’m not trying to say that the only way to plan it is to use a formula.  Actually, that might be what I’m trying to say.  If you think about it, an outline is nothing but a big formula.

That’s all well and good, but I haven’t answered the question.  How can I possibly have fun writing a story and be satisfied with the end result?  Only through the seemingly unholy alliance of formula and spontaneity.

Formulas are not bad if you’re looking for a good end result.  Spontaneity is not bad if you’re looking for fun along the way.  However, too much of either, and you quickly get off track.  So if you’re a discovery writer trying to incorporate formulas into your writing without making it boring, be careful.  If you’re a plotter trying to be spontaneous without going off track, be careful.  Formulas and spontaneity are neither bad nor good, but too much of either is definitely bad.  I suggest caution.

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18 thoughts on “Fill in the Blanks

  1. I love the process of writing. But I think I should add that regardless of how much one may love the process, one will eventually want to see the end. But the end is a bitter-sweet feeling. Yes, you’re done, but at the same time… that’s it, you’re done.
    So… here I am contradicting myself.
    Good post.

      1. You know what? What I just said is not all inclusive true.
        Editing (which in a way is writing)– I don’t always enjoy the journey. Then there’s stuff like how to write a correct query. There are aspects of writing that are not enjoyable, and yet, I want the end result.
        I guess that’s what it all boils down to. If I’m not enjoying the journey, is the end result worth it?
        I have had stories where I lost interest mere words in. I didn’t want to write it any more, no matter how cool the story idea was.
        So, I suppose another question is how much do I love what I am doing?

      2. Indeed. With something like a query letter, I get the feeling that you’d rather have a formula to follow, because you want the end result. For something like a story, you’d want more spontaneity. For editing, definitely a process.

  2. I challenge you to a game of Wii bowling. Or solitaire.

    I usually plan my novels out; but not too much. I like to have a general idea for me to work towards, but occasionally I decide to switch into an entirely different direction halfway through. Either way, I tend to be really bad when it comes to endings.

    Also, I have never solved a rubik’s cube before. The best I did was have all of one color on the same side.

    1. I would take you up on that challenge if I had a way to.

      See, that’s why you would use a formula, to get your endings shipshape and Bristol fashion… but they take away from the spontaneity. So it’s always this hideous circle.

      I had never solved one before either. I used to hate those things.

  3. Ditto Matt on Rubik’s cubes.

    There is a balance between spontaneity and planning, and I think it’s different for each writer.

    That’s pretty much the only thing I have to say worth posting, other than “Good post”.

  4. The farthest I’ve ever gotten on a Rubik’s cube is turning one side green. Then…I got lost.

    Honestly, I think that’s kind of how my writing goes, too. I think I’ve got some kind of process going, or something at least, and then all of the spontaneity that I love so much pops in, and all of a sudden, my novel doesn’t make any sense anymore.

    Not that that isn’t fun. Assuming I enjoy the novel and the characters, then I enjoy the spontaneity and the lack of process until I finish the draft. And then I realize I have a WHOLE lot of editing ahead of me, but sometimes even that can be fun. Sometimes.

  5. Though I’ve tried multiple times to figure out the Rubik’s cubes in my dad’s office, I still haven’t gotten past completing one side. Oh well.

    This really made me think about my writing and how I tackle things, either in writing or in real life things. Formulas work well for me in general. I enjoy checking things off of lists and sitting back with that happy warm feeling that I’ve completed something. I like to have things figured out perfectly before I start anything, like writing a novel. This leads to problems for me though as I start to write–what’s the fun of writing a novel if you’ve got every tiny little detail figured out?
    Perhaps I should work on loosening up and just having fun instead of getting bogged down in the details and formulas.

    1. I think adding a little spontaneity is a good idea. Personally, I dislike the idea of a checklist formula, especially if it tells you exactly what the story should be. If the story is up to you and the major landmarks are formulaic, I’m fine with that.

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